When Everyone Else Is A Ghost

Sergeant Maaka stands outside a ghost house in Wellington Paranormal

You may not believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.

Ghost stories have plenty of other functions, too.



There is a category of ghost story in which an ordinary person from the living world encounters not just a single scary ghost, but an entire room full of uncanny individuals. We suspect they are ghosts; this is subsequently confirmed.

What is so appealing about these stories, and what deeper psychological need do they satisfy in the audience?

Also, if you want to write one yourself, how are they structured? Once we learn the template writers can put our own fresh spin on it.

I’ll be looking at two stories of this category. The first is presented as a factual first person encounter — the “Lost In Time” episode of WYNC’s Spooked podcast (Episode 2 of Season 1). You can subscribe to the Spooked podcast via any podcast app for free. I don’t for a second believe this story as truth. After studying the story, this becomes obvious.

The second example has a completely different tone, presented as horror comedy — the “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” episode of New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal series (Episode 3 of Season 1). This episode is currently available via SBS in Australia, and you can purchase it via YouTube from elsewhere.

This is the general tone of the show. The show is a spoofy blend of The X-files and reality cop shows which are popular in New Zealand and in Australia, such as Police Ten 7.

There is already a comedy element to this show, though the comedy is somewhat muted by the fact we are laughing at the misfortunes of real people, often disenfranchised, often addicted to substances.

Another similar show is NZ Police College, only the police officers are new recruits.

Because of the inherent comedy factor, these shows are therefore ripe for a spoof treatment. And horror is the perfect blend. (Comedy and horror often go really well in stories for kids as well, e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog.)

THE APPEAL OF GHOST WORLD STORIES

  • In these stories the audience gets a taste of what death beyond the grave might look like. Since no one really knows what death will be like, fictional possibilities are endlessly fascinating.
  • Likewise, the idea that time can stand still is appealing, especially when it feels life has sped right up and will be over very soon.
  • Supernatural element aside, we love stories in which characters have a near death experience but come out the other side unscathed.
  • We are drawn to the uncanny, and these stories are nothing if not uncanny.
  • Related tropes are The Inn of No Return (parodied in the Courage the Cowardly Dog pilot) and Hell Hotel. At TV Tropes, the theory is that hotels are inherently uncanny — they feel familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. This room with a bed in it… it’s kind of like your own bedroom, but it’s really not. I wonder if Foucault might call the hotel room a heterotopia.
  • The hotel or pub is therefore a popular setting for an uncanny story, but basically any everyday setting can be seconded for this treatment. All the writer needs to do is make it familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Details are therefore important.

WRITING TEMPLATE FOR ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS A GHOST’ GHOST STORY

Individual stories will differ, but here’s a classic example and a place to start. Notice how this structure is carefully set up with the main purpose of persuading the audience this really happened.

Note, too, how the audience starts off in audience superior position (knowing more than the main character), then we are alongside them, and finally we are learning from the main character. The writer has guided us from a superior position to an inferior one. The narrator/viewpoint character has been turned into our mentor and guide. The audience doesn’t even know this has happened because we are caught up in the spookiness of it all.

This is the power of persuasion at work. Tall tales of any kind work in the same way.

  1. SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD — the more every day and realistic, the better. If you can’t be specific about place (because it didn’t happen), at least be very specific about season/day of the week/time of day.
  2. SHORTCOMING OF MAIN CHARACTERS — likely to be that they don’t know supernatural dangers when stumbling headfirst into it, refusing to believe their own intuition
  3. DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE — what did the main character(s) set out to do before they ran into these ghosts?
  4. ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
  5. ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
  6. OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
  7. DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
  8. DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
  9. AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
  10. CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
  11. PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD — they still can’t believe it even though the audience knows what’s going on
  12. REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
  13. BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
  14. ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
  15. BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
  16. DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
  17. POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED — character may return to the scene or encounter someone else who confirms a similar experience, or read some document etc.
  18. NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT — if the story is set in the past the writer delivers us safely back to the present. The link between past and present is established to create an Overview Effect and we are further persuaded to trust the writer/narrator with our psychological/emotional safety.

Those last three steps function as a unit, as a kind of epilogue and you may get a simple Self-Revelation phase right after the Battle instead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOST IN TIME”

SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD

Northwest Wisconsin, 20 years ago, 3 a.m. “A place with tiny communities and people living far apart from one another.” The woman telling this story comes from the city. She feels like a ‘stranger’ coming into these wild parts. “It’s hard to get reactions out of people. They’re friendly enough but you don’t really get close.”

‘Coming back from’ a bar in Ashland Wisconsin, which is a real, geolocatable place, but the place where this happens is described ambiguously. If I wanted to find this place I wouldn’t be able to. There are many roadhouses around Wisconsin, and all could go by the name of ‘Roadhouse Saloon’.

Pitch black, starless night. “You couldn’t see past the headlights. The forest on each side was swallowed in darkness.” With the verb ‘swallowed’, the setting is described as if it is alive.

SHORTCOMING

Glynn Washington who introduces these Spooked stories has this to say, and it applies to the ‘shortcoming’ of all the main characters:

“We ignore the warnings. We jump the fence, we peek through the keyhole and open up the dark closet”.

In other words, our human shortcoming is that we don’t believe inexplicable things when we first encounter them. We get into things that are way over our heads. When we escape with our lives, we are lucky.

In this particular story, the problem faced by the two main characters is that they are in the middle of wilderness Wisconsin in the middle of the night and they need a rest stop. (I’m not sure what that means because it’s not a local phrase — do they need to use the toilet? This is a hole in the story, because the narrator doesn’t actually use the toilet once she gets to the bar — instead she has a drink. The last thing you want when you’re busting to use the loo.)

The woman telling the story walks with a cane, which is good for the story because it lampshades the reason why she can’t just crouch on the side of the road. In the ‘pitch black’ and with no one else around this wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, right? There’s another good reason for the cane — this is a very identifiable thing specific to her, which comes in handy at the climax.

DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE

Characters who find themselves in a spooky, supernatural world didn’t actually mean to find themselves there. They set out on a journey with another goal in mind. What is that goal?

Here, narrator and Bob want to get home after spending the night at another bar. They want to find a rest stop.  At first they appear to get what they want: The Roadhouse Saloon.

ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD

Like portal fantasy, the narrator must focus on the entry to the supernatural world. In this story, the swinging doors of a saloon are emphasised numerous times. This world is inexplicably uncanny.

ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG

‘Uncanny’ describes the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Therefore, the writer must go out of their way to present the setting as both familiar and off-kilter.

OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS

UNSURPRISED GHOSTS

The other characters are not at all surprised to see Bob and the narrator. This helps the characters feel like nothing is wrong, but we know something is wrong because we know we are reading a ghost story. A helpful trick for the characters in these other worlds: Make them look like they are expecting the newcomers, as if fate has a hand in all this.

DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS

There’s a weird vibe in here — normally, as the narrator explained earlier, people turn away to newcomers, but these ones are unusually friendly.

This makes the audience suspect these people are false allies.

The setting contains anachronous objects, i.e. the old jukebox (which doesn’t look worn). It plays “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Although this story is set 20 years ago (the late 1990s), this is a song from 1961.

DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT

In this story there is an old mural on the wall of a saloon scene with swinging saloon doors, women sitting at a bar, gamblers sitting at a gambling table. “It had perspective but it was really unusual, garish perspective. It was almost tunnel-like but not quite, almost floorlit.” Bob notices that the men at the pool table are the same as the men playing cards in the bar. Gradually it dawns on them that all the characters in the bar are also in the painting. And there is no one else in that painting.

AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS

They realise they are the only people in the bar who aren’t also in the painting. The audience has it confirmed that the characters are ghosts. Of course, we knew that all along, so the revelation is simply a creepy confirmation rather than a revelation.

CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION

Bob and the narrator try to rationalise the scenario: Clearly these people in the bar and in the painting are regulars, so a painter must have made a cool mural starring locals.

PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD

The narrator tries to ask the bartender about it. But he ‘shrug nods’ as if he doesn’t understand the words. The ladies don’t change expression at all when they are asked. These are clearly horror archetypes, with their robotic behaviour.

This is also a feature of comedy archetypes, which is why horror can so easily tip towards comedy, and why the horror-comedy blend is so often successful. This particular story is a genuinely scary story, especially for those who believe it’s true.

REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD

The characters in the setting are not going to help them to understand this scenario, so the narrator and Bob rely on their own powers of deduction and observation:

The only people taking a sip of their drink are the narrator and her companion Bob.

BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER

The people in the bar all start to watch the newcomers. During this big struggle phase, various tropes are utilised:

VIEWPOINT CHARACTER STILL ISN’T AS SCARED AS THE AUDIENCE IS

Now, if we, the audience were in this situation, we would get out of there. But the main character in a horror story has the shortcoming that they don’t really understand how close they are to death. So curiosity overrides fear. In this case, Bob isn’t scared and persuades the narrator to stay even when it’s clear to the audience that they should get out of there.

Everything is on repeat

“Let’s Twist AGAIN” is ironic. Ghosts stuck in an earthly realm are doomed to repeat a single night for the rest of eternity. Presumably, their motivation is to mix things up a bit by welcoming people from the live world into their ghostly fold.

Rule of Three in Storytelling

“When someone plays a song twice that could be their favourite song, but when they play it a third time, you know something is wrong.”

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE

The mural changes to include two shadowy figures outside the door. They get closer to the figures in the mural. These figures resemble Bob and the narrator. The woman in the mural is walking with a cane.

It looks as though those two figures are ‘being filled in’ on the mural. Narrator, Bob and audience know in unison: These people are near death. If they stick around they will become one of the ghosts.

ESCAPE FROM SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD

Bob and narrator hightail it for the door. Every one of the ghosts stands up and turns to them.

CHASE SCENE

The guy who has been playing the record comes after them.

BACK TO SAFETY

But as soon as the door shuts the music stops instantly. The lights in the window go out. It is silent and black as if everything inside no longer exists. There are no cars in the carpark this time.

They speed out of there shaking, trying to catch their breath.

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

10 miles down the road they ask each other if it really happened. Two people have experienced the exact same thing. Folie a deux (shared psychosis) is a thing, but we’re not meant to consider that. The fact that two people saw the same thing is supposed to be a confirmation.

POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED

In this sequence, something from the real world must connect to something from the supposed supernatural world.

Bob and narrator tell an outsider (narrator’s sister). They all return to the scene to check it out. The audience learns that this place itself does exist.

JUXTAPOSITION BETWEEN COSY PRESENT AGAINST FREAKY PAST INCIDENT

The characters ‘feel compelled’ to go back into the saloon. The place is full. People are having food and drinks. The narrator recognises none of the faces but the people in the mural are all still there.

CHARACTER CHECKS DETAILS

Like a classic amateur detective, the narrator checks the scene for evidence. She notices the jukebox is no longer the Wurlitzer. Chubby Checker isn’t even on there.

The bartender is a young woman, not a man. The bartender tells the narrator (and us) that she and her dad are the only ones who tend bar, and they closed at midnight on Saturday night.

NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT

The saloon is still there. Now it’s part of a strip mall with an all night gas station and gift shops. But the mural is still there.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THINGS THAT DO THE BUMP IN THE NIGHT”

The Bump is a type of dance introduced in the 1970s.

SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD

The historical setting of a 70s party makes a mockery of the fact that most ghost stories go further back in time e.g. back to a Gothic era. New Zealand doesn’t have a Gothic history to speak of, either. So this one is set in a Wellington house.

SHORTCOMING

Officer Kyle Minogue (a joke about Australian singer Kylie Minogue) and Officer O’Leary have the same shortcoming in every episode of Wellington Paranormal — they blunder forth doing their jobs as low-mimetic characters who aren’t very good at what they do. Especially considering their profession, they are wholly unobservant. They never learn from past incidents, like true comic characters.

So when Minogue and O’Leary stumble into a ghost world, they are too unobservant and grounded in the safety of the real world to be much perturbed. They will come close to death but they won’t realise the extent of it.

DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE

Minogue and O’Leary talk to the camera and tell us the goal: To get the party music turned down. In conversation between each other, they both agree it’s not their type of music.

ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD

Minogue and O’Leary enter the house as police officers might, narrating their steps for us while using police-esque language such as ‘proceed with caution’. The narration allows us to focus on the portal entry. As mentioned above, this part can’t be skipped or glossed over.

Entry to the other world is given extra emphasis with insertion of the intro credits after this point.

ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG

Wellington Paranormal has a way of handling this which is utilised across all of the different episodes:

Minogue and O’Leary see something wacko, they take it back to their boss at the station (Sergeant Maaka), who makes up some bullshit, super wacko theory to explain what they actually saw.

In this case, Sergeant Maaka draws a ridiculous picture of a creature with antennae, using them as a ‘self-defence mechanism’. The pseudo-scientific language of Sergeant Maaka coupled with the ‘police-esque’ language of Minogue and O’Leary make for a comedy with plenty of language based humour.

Minogue and O’Leary get drawn into this story, but they eventually land on the theory of ‘poltergeists’, which is correct for the setting.

OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS

When we first meet them, these ghosts don’t register the existence of the police officers. The officers resort to speaking to unruly ghosts like school teachers, which is a technique writer Jemaine Clement uses on the character of Murray in Flight of the Conchords. This undermines authority when no one takes him seriously.

A secondary opponent is brought in — the medium Chloe Patterson, a false ally. This medium derails the goal of getting the noise sorted out at this residence. Minogue thinks his grandpa is talking to him. (It is revealed subsequently that the grandpa is still alive.) This sequence is satire of the medium genre of TV shows. This establishes Chloe as a fake.

DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS

Minogue and O’Leary revisit the empty house with the medium. They walk around with their torches and we see all the details.

DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT

In this story, the central supernatural object is a birthday cake with candles on it. The birthday cake itself isn’t especially imbued with powers, but stands for the 20th anniversary nature of the party.

AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS

“It’s a seventies ghost!”

Minogue

This works especially well for a dumb character because we’ve already worked that out.

CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION

Because Minogue is basically stupid, he doesn’t realise he’s walked in on ghosts in the hot tub. He thinks he’s walked in on real people. So this step is subverted.

PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD

Minogue does realise something’s amiss when the medium gets sucked into the spirit world.

Now he attempts to understand the situation by:

  • Working out there are two toilets in the house, by agreeing to rendezvous at this point
  • Making heavy use of the walkie-talkie

They conclude, falsely, that they might be in the ‘upside down’, an allusion to Stranger Things.

AM I GOING CRAZY?

At one point O’Leary says, “Are you sure you’re not just fantasising?” Minogue replies “My fantasies are set in the nineties” (when he would’ve been a teenager).

REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD

The toilet gag derails these characters, which means this step is subverted. These two never really work things out, or never really seem to.

When lipstick draws on the mirror, O’Leary says, “I think I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” which means she knows something is going on, but not to the point where she can put it into words.

BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER

Subverted. A ghost writes words on a mirror in blood (lipstick). At first it appears to say ‘Welcome to Hell’ but the gag is that it continues writing: ‘Welcome to Helen and Ray’s 20th Anniversary’.

The terrifying becomes far less terrifying. “I thought it was going to be way more scary than that.”

However, they’ve still lost the medium.

“I just saw a hideous face at the window!”

It turns out to be Sergeant Maaka who has turned up to help. The near death experience is subverted as he tries to climb down from a very low window. “I appreciate the assist.” He has come with new information. The house used to belong to “Raymond Saint John. The party king.”

Borrowing from the detective genre, the name of the opponent (the criminal) is now known. The amps up the (comic) danger.

Sergeant Maaka delivers a metadiegetic backstory of one horrific night in 1977 when a series of events took place. Two people were found deceased when a table lamp fell into a spa pool. A man died when he got tangled up in a crocheted blanket.

Sergeant Maaka flops into a chair dramatically when learning of the ghosts.

The crocheted blanket rises up so they taser it. (New Zealand cops don’t normally carry guns.) While this near death experience is going on, O’Leary comically narrates what’s going on.

REVELATION ABOUT HOW THE SUPERNATURAL WORLD WORKS

This is where “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” departs from the structure of the Spooked episode above. The Spooked episode has a drawn out, multiple step ‘epilogue’ sort of sequence in which the characters return to the scene of the supernatural happenings.

Here, Minogue has a more classic revelation (which comes after the near-death Battle. Comically, Minogue is trying to work out a pattern. He opens and shuts the toilet door, each time expecting the toilet to transform from the 1970s to the present. But instead, it’s always just a normal toilet.

O’Leary summons them back by asking nicely.

But the Billy T. James ghost character proves to be belligerent and cheeky and won’t listen to requests to shut the noisy party down.

Inspired by a typical high school scenario, there is a juvenile scene in which the officers confront the ghosts. The Party King insults O’Leary by calling her a man and then a Nana.

ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD

O’Leary tells the party goers that they’re all deceased. They take the news on the chin and each leave, because it turns out some of them are over it. At the bottom of the stairwell they fall into a hole in the ground with flames coming out of it.

BACK TO SAFETY

The officers manage to persuade the ghosts to move on to the afterlife. We see them outside, in front of their patrol car, which is how we saw them in the very first scene. The story is now circular.

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

This step is subverted in a comedy. The funniest thing about Minogue and O’Leary is their partial obliviousness. So in lieu of this, we get Sergeant Maaka talking to the camera, assuring us that they are doing their job and the general public has nothing to worry about.

POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED

At first the audience is encouraged to doubt if this is really a ghost story because the sergeants have the Party King in the back seat of the patrol car.

As the underling sergeants deliver a moral lecture to the camera saying, “You can party til you drop, just not after you drop,” the Party King floats up through the roof of the vehicle and scurries off.

As usual, the episode ends with the NZ Police slogan: “Safe communities together”.

The End Of The Fxxxing World Storytelling

The End Of The Fucking World

Listed on IMDb as a comedy drama, The End Of The Fxxxing World is a darkly comic coming-of-age tale with a major crime at the centre of the plot. It is also a twisted and cynical romance. The script is written by Charlie Covell, based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. Forsman is an American writer, from Pennsylvania. Covell is a British writer and longtime actress. You may have seen her in Siblings or Peep Show and most recently Marcella.

End of the Fucking World

STORYWORLD OF THE END OF THE FXXXING WORLD

How to adapt an American story for British screen, filmed in Britain?

Jonathan’s idea was always to try and do Americana, British-style. So if you look at the way Lucy Tcherniak and Jonathan both shot it, there are lots of nods to American TV shows, hopefully, and American landscapes. So we were trying to find parts of the UK that didn’t look quintessentially British – we filmed the finale on the Isle of Sheppey, and so hopefully there’s a feeling of expanse like you’d get in the Midwest. I think it was almost trying to do a Fargo-take on Britain, so they move from suburbia to an English version of the Wild West.

interview with Charlie Covell

Speaking of Americana, the audience is reminded periodically that this is ‘not a Hollywood movie’. Which is true — it’s a limited British TV series. The car isn’t going to blow up because it’s not a movie. Then it blows up. Both characters are informed by media they have consumed over the course of their lives. Alyssa’s behaviour is explained by her enthusiasm to watch the porn channel in the hotel room. She has no doubt been exposed to a lot of that. She’s seen a lot of crime shows (haven’t we all), and she calls upon her knowledge of crime fiction when deciding to clean the house after their murder. This gets around something all writers wrestle with — how to stop characters sounding like they’ve got their dialogue straight out of someone else’s crime fiction? One workaround, used here and also used in Thelma and Louise, is to acknowledge the fact that your new-to-the-life criminals probably did get their dialogue from elsewhere. Thelma repeats the souped up show-off dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. Alyssa finds rubber gloves and bleach.

When Alyssa smashes her phone, this solves a big problem for contemporary writers, telling tales about people who would normally be fully contactable. This is fully in keeping with Alyssa’s character so it works. “I’m so glad I smashed my phone,” she says, later, reminding us that no one can easily find them. When we take technology away from our characters, the story immediately has a retro feel. This one feels almost like the 1970s or 1980s, especially with the style of Alyssa’s father’s jacket, and even the architecture of the house they break into.

STORY STRUCTURE

The big question introduced in the pilot: Will James really murder Alyssa? If so, how? This question sustains the entire series.

The voice over technique affords novelistic advantages as we hear the thoughts of Alyssa and James, juxtaposed against how they are acting and what they are saying. Watching The End Of The Fxxxing World is like reading a novel which alternates point of view after each chapter. A film which uses a similar technique is About A Boy, also British. Sure enough, both The End Of The Fxxxing World and About A Boy are based on books which alternate points of view.

In line with the ‘Americana’ aims, The End Of The Fxxxing World is basically a Thelma and Louise plot with young adult main characters.

  • Two characters go on a road trip, each of them hoping to have some kind of fun. One of them in particular just wants something to change — anything. She needs some kind of awakening.
  • Both Thelma and Alyssa are escaping domestic violence.
  • An initial rape scene ends with the other killing the rapist, who has raped many times before.
  • This is just the first crime in a series of others.
  • There are stops in cheap hotels, and other characters along the way, who they foil.
  • The characters they meet are stereotypes, which make our heroes seem more human.
  • One of the cops on their trail feels great empathy for them, engendering empathy from the audience, too.
  • After their last big crime, Alyssa, like Thelma, declares that she’s never felt so alive, or more like herself. She’s finally found out who she really is.
  • The pair look set to ‘drive off a cliff together’ (try to motorboat across the channel with no supplies and no fresh water), though that would’ve been too faithful to Thelma and Louise, so they change it a bit.

People who have seen Bonnie and Clyde have said this is the millennial version of Bonnie and Clyde.

See also: Comparing Bonnie and Clyde With Thelma and Louise

Road trip movies take the shape of mythic stories. These stories can feel episodic (and therefore lose narrative drive) because of all the different settings and characters encountered along the way. Modern audiences don’t have much time for episodic stories. So modern storytellers have to find ways to make their threads interweave. In Thelma and Louise, the Brad Pitt character keeps cropping up, for instance. In The End of the Fxxxing World:

  • Alyssa and James’s parents have never met, but they are eventually filmed sitting side by side on the couch. These characters come together rather than drift apart, lending cohesion.
  • There is plenty of conflict between Alyssa and James themselves. They spend part of the story each on their own. When they come back together, more cohesion.
  • It’s critical to have a definite end goal, even if they end up off track. This end goal has to be established early. (Alyssa’s father’s place.)
  • There is a parallel journey going on — in this series it is the cop duo, tracking them. Because they’re following the same mirrored journey, this gives narrative cohesion.

We therefore don’t mind that Alyssa and James briefly meet a number of temporary characters and spend every night somewhere else.

For another Road Trip story see my analysis of Little Miss Sunshine.

CHARACTERISATION

The writers of The End Of The Fxxxing World use a trick employed by Cormac McCarthy in No Country For Old Men. In this case not one but two unsympathetic characters are introduced. The girl is annoying but the boy is portrayed as psychopathic. Terrible though these people are, they suddenly seem relatively normal once they happen to break into the home of a serial murderer. Likewise, Walter White seems benign when compared to the experienced drug lord running Albuquerque.

Alyssa is not initially a likeable character, but she is is constantly fascinating. Like Lady Bird, she is far from perfect but she knows what she wants. She wants an adventure. She’s going to get her adventure even if she destroys her life in the process. (Alyssa is a more extreme version of Lady Bird of Greta Gerwig’s film.) Alyssa is a Thelma-character in some ways, but a Louise in others. By the end of the story she is a young Louise — we know she’ll be cynical and world wise now that she’s even seen through her Dad.

The character arc of James is imbued with comic darkness — he thinks he’s a psychopath. It turns out he’s not — his deadness inside has been a defence mechanism, which started the day he witnessed his mother drive into the pond. Through his relationship with the gregarious, assertive Alyssa, he learns that he is capable of feeling things after all. Tragically for him, he learns this lesson the moment he dies.

This series inverts a number of gender tropes.

  • When female characters break free they are very often required to sacrifice their lives the moment they achieve their aim, failing to break free at all. Thelma and Louise is a classic example of this. It’s so common it’s problematic, genderwise. Plenty of men are sacrificed in movies too, but not in this way. But this time James dies in a typically feminine way.
  • The cops are both women.
  • At the petrol station it’s a woman boss who is mistreating a male underling working in customer service, and who tries to play the hero by apprehending Alyssa.
  • Because Alyssa is so nihilistic in her own right, the show avoids turning her into some Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

In other ways, gender norms are not subverted. A disproportionate number of the male characters are perverts. James winds up sacrificing himself for a girl. Alyssa’s father is a stereotypical useless, uninvolved manchild.

The female cop duo are not in the original comic. One character has been split into two. This is interesting because in most paper to screen adaptations, characters are culled, not added. There is no romantic subplot for the cops in the comic. Their story mirrors the story of Alyssa and James, in a way. Neither is sure they really want to be with the other, but they are each drawn to the other anyhow, in a constant push and pull. The antagonistic relationship between the cops allows for dialogue about the themes: How much empathy and leniency do these kids deserve? Are they still kids?

James’s plan to kill Alyssa comes to an end after a few episodes. To be honest, this almost turned me off watching it. I don’t think I’d have continued had this plan continued longer. But when his plan is changed, he no longer has any plan at all. He’s basically a stunned mullet. It is Alyssa who comes up with all the plans from there on in. This is fairly common in a story with two main characters — one of them makes all the plans, the other goes along with them.

Alyssa’s father Leslie is a comical character — a tragic hippie trope. Portrayed as pretty dim, the joke at the end is that he’s not as dim as we thought he was — he knows enough to call the cops and get reward money. Jeff Kinney use’s Greg Heffley’s older brother in a similar way, setting him up as stupid, then rewarding the audience with the occasional ironic lightbulb moment where he seems pretty genius. Alyssa’s father is soon brought down again, because Alyssa is smarter by a long shot.

Humour and Storytelling of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim is a satirical Australian comedy series created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley, which aired 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007. There are a couple of movies, too.

Kath and Kim was remade in America but failed to achieve popularity. Kath and Kim is a specifically (pacifically) Australian series, though enjoyed equally in New Zealand, and not just because Kiwis like to see Aussies making fun of themselves! (It’s because New Zealanders recognise the same characters.)

What can comedy writers learn from Kath and Kim? Below I take a look at the humour of Kath and Kim taking cues from the taxonomy of humour proposed by the creator of The Onion.

IRONY

Any difference between expectation and outcome

Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based. Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. (For more on satire, see my post on irony. For the difference between satire, farce and parody, Quora has a good answer on that.)

CHARACTER HUMOUR

Comedic character acting on personality traits

A lot of the humour of Kath and Kim comes from understanding who the characters are and laughing at them whenever they do something which is ‘just like them’. In order for this to work, the writers have to set up the characters and dynamics as quickly as possible. It starts with the intro — Kim ‘thinks she’s all that’, whereas her mother has her own sense of fashion and doesn’t realise when she’s looking ridiculous.

STRAIGHT GIRL, MADCAP GIRL

The dynamic between Kim and Sharon is seen in a lot of comedies. Here we have a stoopid/naive character whose best friend is no less stupid but more of a schemer. We see this between Patrick (stoopid) and SpongeBob Squarepants (a schemer). We see these two tropes in Seinfeld, though the mutual friend is Jerry: Kramer is the naive character and George is the schemer. In We Bare Bears Grizz is the schemer and Pan Pan is the naive one.

The friendship between Kim and Sharon is perhaps a specifically female one. Though not at all a comedy, Helen Garner writes of the real life friendship between Anu Singh and Madhavi Rao in her true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation:

Perhaps they are most flagrant in adolescence: one girl is wild, bossy, selfish, flaring with hormones, crackling with sexual drive and careless of risk, but still dependent on the ballast provided by her companion, who is prim and cautious, not yet at the mercy of her body, one foot still planted in the self-containment of girlhood. They need each other. The well-meaning ‘supportive’ one trails along in the wake of her narcissistic friend, half aware that she is being used — as a cover against parental suspicions, a second fiddle, a handmaid, a foil. But she also feeds off the wrecker’s high-voltage energy.

The tendency to form such partnerships doesn’t end with youth. Every woman I have asked about this knew immediately what I meant and could provide examples. Many a woman has shifted, as different stages of her life brought forth different needs, the paring most poignantly when it inspires comedy: Dame Edna and her drab bridesmaid Madge; Kim and her browbeaten best friend Sharon Strezlecki in Kath and Kim. Even as we laugh, the spectacle disturbs us: we wait breathlessly for the worm to turn. And yet it is a relationship that benefits both partners. It would be hard to say, at its height, whose power is the greater.

Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were another real-life couple whose friendship was depicted as toxically imbalanced in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures, though to what extent can one girl influence another? That’s the interesting question.

Orange Is The New Black arguably has a number of such partnerships. The most extreme and disturbing of those is between Crazy Eyes and Vee, because Vee knows exactly what the relationship is, and how she’s using another person for her own gain. The friendship between Alex Vause and Piper Chapman might be a better example, at least in the prequel years leading up to their time in prison.

Most television series with a wide cast of characters, and which also happen to pass the Bechdel Test, have at least one relationship that fits this description. In Mad Men there was Joan Holloway’s friend and room mate Carol.

In Six Feet Under it was Claire Fisher and Edie. It seems writers (and audiences) find such friendships especially interesting when one has lesbian interest in the other. But I haven’t seen exactly the same dynamics become so common in fictional male friendships, unless I’m missing something.

Mena Suvari was cast as a very similar sort of girl by Alan Ball in American Beauty, using Thora Birch’s character as her supporting role. Of course, the plot subverts audience expectations about how this friendship really works, therefore relying on the audience’s implicit understanding of how these friendships tend to work before the reveal is at all surprising.

In Freaks and Geeks, the relationship between Lindsay Weir and Kim Kelly is difficult to understand unless you understand this particular power dynamic. The writers did a bit of lampshading in order to explain the relationship, making Kim’s interest in Lindsay very obvious: Kim was trying to show her parents that she had turned a new leaf in order to keep her car. Befriending the study nerd was part of her plan.

In Gilmore girls we have Paris as a comically A-type personality who needs a cast of supporting characters in order for her to feel competitive and worthy. Paris only has ‘frenemies’. Though her relationship with Rory gradually becomes more like a friendship as the seasons progress.

STOOPID CHARACTERS AS ‘STOMACH

Often correlating with stoopid characters — they tend to be the ‘stomach’ of the group. In his book Secrets of Story, Matt Bird writes about a common character ensemble in which characters will correlate with heart, head and stomach. This doesn’t just work for comedy, by the way. In other words, one will be the thinker, one will be the emotional character and the other will go with their gut. In comedy, the stomach is often quite literal — Kim ploughs headfirst into things and she is always eating.

I argue that of the characters in Kath and Kim, Kath is the head — it’s all relative — and Sharon is the heart, most likely to be sobbing at any point, or to feel lonely.

Kath Day-Knight is a more unusual comedic character (noice, yeah, different, yes it’s unusual…). She has similarities to the 1950s housewife we’ve seen before in American comedies, but the refreshing thing about this series is that she isn’t the ‘straight-man’ to her slob of a husband.

I wonder if Turner and Riley despise the Married With Children and Everybody Loves Raymond marriages as much as I do, because they’ve gone out of their way to create in Kel Knight a man who is their opposite. In this marriage it’s Kath who is a slave to the gender binary. Unusually for comedy series she undergoes a character arc after learning about Kel’s bisexual years in the army, and even sets aside her spare room for his man bags.

REFERENCE HUMOUR

Common experiences that audiences can relate to

  • Having an argument in your front suburban yard and nosy neighbours look at you
  • Going to an expensive gift shop at the mall where you get the feeling the shop assistants are laughing at you as soon as you leave the shop
  • Trying to park at the mall and having a concrete pillar ‘leap out at you’
  • Getting a pet that turns out to be more work than you thought
  • Getting an invitation to a baby shower from someone you don’t really like
  • Having kids move back in the moment you repurpose their old bedroom
  • Having kids come back home and raiding your fridge
  • Wanting to look good at your school reunion to show what a success you turned out
  • Feeling middle age and embarking upon a health and fitness regime
  • Settling into the routine of a new relationship — who does what jobs around the house, and how
  • Going on holidays with your in-laws and feeling like you don’t have enough time on your own
Brand Names

I wasn’t living in Australia when I first watched this series, but it’s refreshing to watch a locally produced show in which you recognise the brand names. This is a disadvantage we have when watching American or British humour — I suspect I’m missing the full extent of the humour because even if I recognise names, I don’t fully understand their cultural associations. (I’ve also been watching To The Manor Born lately, in which we have not only a cultural difference but an historic one.)

When Kim chastises Sharon for stealing her Petit Miams, I know exactly what those are. I know people in my own life who can’t leave them alone if they happen to be in the fridge. Kath and Kim elicits laughs by being super specific when referring to items. Kath is especially funny because she is still living in the 1970s.

SHOCK HUMOUR

Surprising jokes typically involving sex, drugs, gross-out humour and swearing

Kath and Kim is not a particularly shocking show, though if you watch it with your kids you’ll have a bit of explaining to do. Mostly they’re sex jokes.

A running gag is that Kim is grossed out by her mother’s references to sex with Kel, who she finds repulsive. Juxtaposed with that is the suggestion that Kim has terrible sex and doesn’t understand what good sex feels like.

In one episode Kath has lost her mojo. The therapist advises them to ditch the clothes. Kath and Kel take this literally. They arrive home from doing the groceries stark naked, and do the gardening naked too. Sharon and Brett decide it’s a great idea, and though we don’t see it, Sharon recounts a slapstick pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey episode in which she falls over naked and ruins a chance with her current crush.

PARODY HUMOUR

Mimic a character, trope, genre as closely as possible

Kim’s husband Brett has also been seen before in comedy, for instance in Keeping Up Appearances, but as the series wears on, it is clear that Brett is not really the victim he appears to be at first glance — he is masochistically turned on by a wife who seems to have memorised The Rules, which I’d almost forgotten about but remember that phenomenon? Sadly, the series is still going, with revisions ‘for the digital generation’. Authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider advocate that women ‘treat em mean to keep em keen’. First published in the year 2000, perhaps Western culture was feeling nervous about the turn of the millennium. Kim is a parody of that book and the culture that sprang up around it.

HYPERBOLE AS HUMOUR

Exaggeration to absurd extremes

Every episode takes ordinary situations to absurd extremes — you can rely on it.

Kath is a bored housewife so enrols in a floral design course. The drama around finding the right kind of flower is all out of proportion to the actual direness of the situation, but the episode ends with Kath using a whole pineapple as hat decoration instead of the flowers she originally wanted. The writers don’t stop there — she wins the TAFE competition. In the episode final conversation Kath and Kim have outside, Kath compares herself to Nicole Kidman by saying that she’s been snubbed. Others in her course complained that a pineapple is not a flower.

This joke was set up particularly well because as we see her using Kel as model for her ridiculous floral hats, she is unhappy with every creation she makes. “Oh, that’s not right,” she says, frustrated. Because we know that Kath has an ostentatious sense of fashion, and that even the final creation she comes up with will be gaudy and over-the-top, it is funny to see that even Kath has her own inner sense of style, and that she (and she alone) can tell the difference between one of her gaudy hats and one that is perfect.

WORDPLAY HUMOUR

Puns, rhymes, double entendres, etc.

Kath and Kim is big on word play and it works so well because you’ve probably heard people make exactly the same mistakes yourself. My great auntie says ‘prostrate cancer’ instead of ‘prostate’ and part of me thinks it’s because ‘prostate’ is too uncomfortable for her to say. That’s how it works on Kath and Kim.

  • ‘Pacifically’ instead of ‘specifically’, except when they actually mean ‘Pacific’, in which case they’re going on a ‘Specific Cruise’. (The pattern is well-and-truly set up before the inversion gag is revealed.)
  • A lot of the jokes are malapropisms, or phonological similarities “casting nasturtiums”, “I need breakfast, I’m ravishing.”

MADCAP

Crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical

Some things are inherently weird-looking, and Kath and Kim make the most of the silliness of:

  • Home-use exercise machines
  • Power walking
  • Disco dancing
  • Irish dancing
  • Inability to take steps while holding the ball in netball

Almost every episode features a ‘big struggle scene’ in which the characters look silly, but these characters look silly at every opportunity. Kath only smokes (in secret) while wearing a rubber glove. We all know women of about that age who don’t want to stain their fingers, which makes this a combination of madcap and character reference humour.

MISPLACED FOCUS

Attention is focused on the wrong thing

When Kath starts to worry about her ‘chooky neck’ after enduring insults from her teenage-like daughter, she doesn’t realise she’s starting to get upset and is walking like a chook.

In a later episode, Kim doesn’t realise that her hair extension is made of horse’s hair which makes her desirable to her mother’s irascible wedding horse.

REPETITION (RUNNING GAG)

Scott Dikkers of The Onion talks about ‘jokes about jokes’, but the equivalent of that in Kath and Kim is when the audience waits for something we know is coming, and are satisfied when it does. At one point in every episode Kath will tell two fighting factions to ‘Look at moi, look at moi’.

This form of ‘waiting for the snap’ is also used by Catherine Tate, for instance in her Nan skits, in which Nan always switches from nasty to nice or vice versa. The key in writing this kind of joke is giving the audience enough clues to know when it’s going to happen.

  • In Southpark it’s ‘They killed Kenny, you bastards!”
  • In Keeping Up Appearances someone will mispronounce Mrs Bucket’s name and Hyacinth will roll her eyes and says, “It’s BOUQUET!”

Courage The Cowardly Dog: Doctor Le Quack

All of the Courage The Cowardly Dog episodes including Doctor Le Quack are set in a place called Nowhere. “Be quiet, Eustace,” says Muriel one morning, “you’ll wake the neighbours!”

doctor le quack amnesia specialist
eustace on the roof doctor le quack

This setting is perfect for western spoofs. Many of the Courage stories are horror spoofs but in Dr Le Quack we have the cartoon, child-friendly version of a wild western caper film.

GENRE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

A caper story is a story in which the main characters pull off some kind of heist. (Also called a heist story.) A caper is a comic crime story. So, caper = crime + comedy.

Breaking Bad makes use of caper elements e.g. At the beginning of season five when Walt and Jesse rig up an explosion to wipe out an incriminating laptop in police storage, and earlier in the seasons when they steal the chemicals from the factory wearing woollen hats with pompoms.

Western Symbolism In Doctor Le Quack

Western symbolism can be seen in many of the Courage stories. Here we have the story opening with the rising sun at dawn. While this is not specific to the western genre, the sun has symbolic meaning in a western. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset. Quite a few picturebooks end with characters walking off into the sunset, too. Here we have dawn breaking over the desolate plain. 

The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert. Here, I don’t think it has any specific symbolic meaning. Along with the soundtrack and the big skies it is simply meant to convey the atmosphere of an old western film.

However, a rising sun in a story does indicate that this is going to be one eventful day, and that the events will conclude by the end of it.

dawn-nowhere

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

SHORTCOMING IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage is cowardly. Nonetheless, he needs to save the day.

DESIRE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

After Eustace accidentally hits Muriel on the head with a plank of wood Muriel loses her memory. Eustace takes this opportunity to get rid of the dog.

Amnesia comes easy in fiction. It is also conveniently specific. A taste of Applied Phlebotinum, a particularly shocking traumatic event, or even a simple Tap on the Head will be sufficient to make your character forget all about who or what they are.

— TV Tropes

He wants to get back into the house and do something for Muriel.

OPPONENT OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

Eustace is the first opponent but soon another comes along in the form of an evil French duck. As with the cajun fox last episode, this duck isn’t really French — he slaps on a French moustache which falls off later right before the main big struggle. I think the producers might do this because the same voice actor mimics a variety of different accents in parodic rather than realistic fashion.

First we see Le Duck’s lair. This is a Scrooge McDuck character, which of course comes from Dickens. His riches do not make him happy. He is collecting riches simply for the game of it, leaving bags of money just sitting around. He hasn’t even replaced his office chair, which looks as if it’s got a big bite out of it. This is a purely evil character motivated by power.

le-quacks-office

Then we see who is sitting on the other end of the computer.

le-quack-in-office

PLAN IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage has already gotten back into the house by first trying to swing in Tarzan style from a tree, then with a pole vault.

courage-tries-to-pole-vault-inside

Eventually he gets in and via the Internet enlists the help of a doctor. Even the computer is anthropomorphised and has an evil personality of its own. These were the days when viewers were using the Internet for the first time and there was more mistrust than there is today.

internet-help

Plans change when it becomes apparent that the visiting doctor meant to help Muriel is actually a quack who wants to raid the silverware drawer.

The duck’s plan is to

  1. Knock Eustace on the head so he’s out for a while
  2. Torture Muriel until she reveals where her piggybank is. He can’t find any treasure in the house.

This is where the heist spoof comes in. The duck sets up a toy train track and binds Muriel up in rope reminiscent of a scene in which a beautiful young woman is tied to the train tracks. Instead of using this quite sexualised trope, the writers of this children’s story modify it quite a bit — Muriel sits on a chair nearby and the toy train throws pies in her face.

muriel-bound
le-quack-train-track

This familiar scenario [chained to a railway] first appeared in the 1867 short story “Captain Tom’s Fright, although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play The Engineer. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play Under the Gaslight, by Augustin Daly. […] As bizarre (and horrible) as it may seem, this trope is Truth in Television. At least six people in the United States were killed between 1874 and 1910 as a result of being tied to railroad tracks.

— TV Tropes

The same trope is also used in games such as Red Dead Redemption.

red-dead-screenshot

Courage blows him up. When opponents are destroyed by Courage in this series it’s common for the opponent to say something understated like, “How annoying.” That’s what happens here. This feels a little meta. Why would the duck panic about being blown up? He’s a cartoon character who will bounce back to life before the next scene.

courage-blows-up-duck

When this doesn’t work the duck disgusts her by holding a plate of smelly cheese right under her nose.

stinky-cheese

Next we see a huge, muscled rat with tats appear in the doorway. It first seems that he has been attracted by the cheese, but when Courage pays him off we see that this has been Courage’s plan all along. The common sequencing in this story is that something happens, we worry about Courage, then we see he planned it.

rat-cheese

BIG STRUGGLE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

The final big struggle involves a vacuum cleaner. The duck tries to suck Courage up. But instead he sucks up all the planks nailed across the doorway and the whole thing blows up in a huge explosion, reminiscent of the explosions often used in train heist stories to wreck parts of a railway line.

exploding-vacuum-cleaner

The policemen Courage has tried to summon turn up at this point and stomp all over Courage to get to the duck.

ANAGNORISIS IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We learn that this duck is a wanted criminal.

img_5895

NEW SITUATION IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We think the duck is going to prison. “We’ve been looking for you!” say the policemen.

le-quack-in-back-of-prison-van

But the duck breaks free — we get a flash scene reminiscent of something out of No Country For Old Men — and says to the camera that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.

le-quack-breaks-free